On 13 April 1944, sisters Susan-Zsuzsa and Lili Klein wrote their father Hugo a short letter: "Dear Daddy, We are well – goodbye." Hugo had been drafted into a forced labor battalion in 1943; his wife Matild had stayed with their two daughters in their hometown of Hencida in the Bihar district of Hungary. Hugo survived the war, but Matild, Susan-Zsuzsa (9) and Lili (7) were deported to Auschwitz on 24 May 1944 and murdered shortly after their arrival.
Exactly 75 years later, Susan-Zsuzsa and Lili's letter is among a dozen last letters included in Yad Vashem's latest online exhibition entitled, "Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1944" which is being uploaded to mark Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day 2019. The final in a series on last letters sent by Holocaust victims from Nazi-occupied Europe, this exhibition highlights the hopes, wishes and shattered dreams of Jewish men, women and children in their final correspondence to their families and friends.
Many of the documents included in the online exhibition, as well as the photographs, were donated to Yad Vashem as part of its national "Gathering the Fragments" campaign.The missives, long and short, were sent from their homes, hiding places, ghettos, camps and even thrown from deportation trains in an attempt by their authors to express their desires to be closer to their loved ones during this extreme period of uncertainty, and often included a hopeful message of once again reuniting.
"This exhibit – the fourth and final chapter in a special series on last letters in which all the writers were murdered in the Holocaust – shows us the shared fate of Jews in the year 1944," explains Yad Vashem's Online Exhibitions Coordinator Yona Kobo. "1944 was the year in which the Nazis were already heading to defeat and their army was retreating towards the German borders. Despite that, the destruction of European Jewry continued at full pace. The last Jews of Greece, Italy, France, Holland and Slovakia were being murdered in 1944 and the Nazis began the mass deportation of 500,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz for extermination.
"At the same time that Paris and Rome in the West and Vilna and Minsk in the East were being liberated from Nazi hands, we see in many of the last letters a glimmer of hope by the writers to be reunited with their loved ones. The letters presented in the exhibition were found in the collections of documents housed in the Archives at Yad Vashem. They were written 75 years ago on small pieces of paper or the back of postcards, which sometimes are stained with the tears of both the sender and the recipients. Through the prism of these letters, we tell the story of the individual in the Shoah, and restore the names and faces to the victims.
"Personal letters from children are some of the rarest things we have in our collections. Normally young children vanished without a trace, which is why these letters are so exceptional. These letters show – despite the cruel circumstances of the Nazi pursuit to murder Jews – that keeping familial connections and protecting their children was the most important element for so many Jews."
One of the stories of a child in this exhibition is ten-year-old Jacob Hijman Marcus, from Amsterdam. He wrote a letter to his grandparents on 16 May 1944 while in hiding with his aunt Rosa. "Dear Grandma and Grandpa how are you doing? Here, everything is going well… I send you all good wishes on the occasion of the birthday of your only son. Please congratulate him for me."
Only three weeks later, Marcus and Rosa were discovered and deported to the Terezin ghetto. Shortly after, Jacob's name appeared on a transportation list to Auschwitz; Rosa decided to accompany him, and switched her name with another person on the same list.
On 23 October 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz. Jacob was murdered upon arrival in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, while Rosa passed the selektion and survived until the liberation of the camp. Two months later, in March 1945, she tragically died of food poisoning after buying and eating what she was told was kosher food. Jacob's parents, grandfather and grandmother survived the war.
These irreplaceable letters are just two examples of the millions of pages of documentation housed in Yad Vashem's Archives. Together with the tens of thousands of Holocaust-era artifacts and artworks in Yad Vashem's collections, these priceless historical testimonies are due to be conserved and stored in the new Shoah Heritage Collections Center – the heart of the new Shoah Heritage Campus being built on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.
"The Germans Nazis were determined not only to annihilate the Jewish people, but also to obliterate their identity, memory, culture and heritage," remarked Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. "For many, all that remains are a treasured work of art, a personal artifact that survived with them, a photograph kept close to their person, a diary, or a note. By preserving these precious items – that are of great importance not just to the Jewish people, but also to humanity as a whole – and revealing them to the public, they will act as the voice of the victims and the survivors, and serve as an everlasting memory."
Sisters Suzan-Zsuzsa (right) and Lili Klein. Photo: Yad Vashem